April 2010

Richard Wirick


Brains, Bats, and Implanted Thoughts: The Perpetual Life of Philip K. Dick

The legacy of World War terminus has diminished in potency; those who could not survive the dust had passed into oblivion years ago, and the dust, weaker now and confronting the strong survivors, only deranged minds and genetic properties. Despite his lead codpiece, the dust --- undoubtedly --- filtered in and at him, brought him daily, so long as he failed to emigrate, its little load of befouling filth. So far, medical checkups taken monthly confirmed him as a regular: a man who could reproduce within tolerances set by law. Any month, however, the exam by the San Francisco Police Department doctors could reveal otherwise. Continually, new specials came into existence, created out of regulars by the omnipresent dust. The ads ran: “Emigrant or degenerate! The choice is yours!” Very true, Rick thought as he opened the gate to his little pasture and approached his electric sheep. But I can’t emigrate, he said to himself. Because of my job. -- Philip K. Dick,  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 

Most people know Philip K. Dick for the story that inspired movies such as Blade Runner, a film that defined the language of latter day science fiction cinema and its extraordinary advances in special effects. After writing hundreds of stories, numerous novels, essays and screenplays, Dick joined those writers who turned aside from their work and made an eccentric public life their final art, though his work as a serious writer was never that far from serious readers’ attentions.

He died in 1982, broke, decrepit, most probably mentally ill. He had been manhandled by publishers, agents, studios. He loved to quote William Burroughs’s definition of the paranoid, applicable to himself then as well as to reams of his characters: “He’s the one with all the information.” The last of Library of America’s amazing three-volume collection of his stories has now seen print, a long-overdue event in science fiction publishing, and indeed, in what Jonathan Lethem has described as Dick’s own unique genre, that of the techno-surveillance obsessed narrative.

The premises of many of Dick’s stories entailed problems that I and my fellow philosophy students and teachers at Berkeley had wrestled with the decade prior to his death. Two of these questions have occupied the philosophy of mind since at least the Second World War, and have galvanized the attention of philosophers and neuroscientists right in tandem with their hold on the imaginations of filmmaking acolytes throughout the '80s and '90s.

The first question served is the sole vibrating note of Blade Runner’s entire narrative tension: do robots, computers or zombies [viz. “Replicants”] in any sense “think” or possess something akin to human consciousness? If so, how could that be tested, and what would count as proof or lack of proof for that hypothesis? Lovers of the film will recall Harrison Ford’s final decision to scrap his mission and explore the artificial romantic mental states beamed to him by Sean Young. They are compelling enough to make this writer fall in love with her at the time and leave it to professionals of one or another ilk to distinguish from the real thing.

The second question, explored more in Dick inspirations like the Matrix series and Minority Report, is more subtle: even if one grants that we humans have consciousness, how do we know it was not something implanted in our brains like a computer program, complete with a false but plausible “memory” and reasonable expectations for a similar future?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. It is fairly clear now that machines -- fear not -- can in no sense have conscious states similar to those of humans or other sentient animals. The difference between thinking and consciousness is important, and the fact that computers or robots can perform the former but not the later is not merely academic or semantic. It is valuable to our understanding of the world and our concept of rights and duties -- what we feel is ethically owed by one person to another.

Don’t get me wrong: machines, including robotic machines performing computations, can think thousands of times as fast as human brains. They can calculate and retrieve stored data (“memory”) far more rapidly than our processes would allow. The ability of machines to perform these mind-like functions has resulted in a great leap forward for human intelligence, and has made life immeasurably better and easier for all of us.

But consciousness has certain features that make it something else, something that can only be experienced in a human or animal brain. The object experienced is not what is unique; rather, it is the experiencing process itself. It stands alone in the singularity of its features, and thus has an irreducible quality that cannot be assembled from something else or reproduced. In fact, philosophers of mind have come to call consciousness’s objects qualia, borrowing from Medieval church philosophers’ term for the aspects or characteristics of a thing.

Consciousness cannot be accounted for with most, or perhaps any, descriptions of it. One can explain what causes the brain processes of a bat as it flies along sending out and feeling the return of its radar, but that (in an example given by one philosopher) would not give us the qualitative experience of bat-ness. Our own experience provides material that enables us to imagine the consciousness of a bat: we can, however, limited our experience, think of what it would be like to have fur and webbed feet, extremely poor vision, to sleep upside down and eat insects. But this would tell us only what it is like for us to behave like a bat, which is not what we want. We wish to know what it is like for a bat to be like a bat. But the limits of human experience make this almost impossible.

So the experience of bat consciousness, like the experience of human consciousness, is irreducible, unique and incapable of production. Its most important features, what it would be like to be that way, is exactly what is most accessible about it. (We could imagine a computer program that approximates to the feelings of consciousness as closely as software designers can get it, and some have come pretty close. But there would be sense of whether the program is actually conscious unless we were the computer running the program.) So all the descriptions in the world come up against the bare wall of consciousness irreducibility. The particular feel of bat thoughts and bat sensations? Forget about it. All we can do is pretend. We can never partake.

Now back to Dick and his Androids novel, and its adaptation in Blade Runner. For Ford and Young are flying off together at the end of the film, she as slim as a whippet in her lovely red dress and Ms. Marple Replicant hair bun, she can have every conceivable problem-solving and computation ability her creators what to bestow on her. Maybe she can man the aircraft better than Ford. She may be capable of calculating the velocity, altitude and clocked nautical miles of the ship ten times -- a hundred times -- as well as her human passenger. But without a brain inside her, she in no sense possesses consciousness. Her mental events have every feature of conscious events except the feel of them. She lacks the qualia of human-ness.

Ultimately, it may not make that much difference, even if their relationship is meant by its creator to flourish. Young-the-Replicant could perform any conceivable acts of outwardly recognizable love, loyalty and cruelty that mark any relationship. The would simply be performed without the first-order level of awareness that we have characterized as consciousness -- the textual vividness that Robert Nozick called consciousness’s felt quality. Ford would never have to know, and he would have no evidence -- short of mangled descriptions of her own thoughts -- to suspect she was anything other than human.

None of the above is meant to say that conscious agents cannot act in non-conscious, automatic ways in much of their experience. The drudgeries of daily life, our programmed manner of conducting it, are things that make humans a most fertile field in which to plant the race of Replicants. The Replicants in the movie have sensory motor systems that carry out forms of behavior in a non-conscious way, but only because the Replicants have no consciousness. We, on the other hand, can possess the magic stuff and still operate without it. Many mental processes going on in conscious subjects are entirely non-conscious. Both human and Replicant reach for their keys in the same way, affect certain body postures or run after an object that might get away all in the same manner. The reason conscious agents like humans don’t think these procedures through is that it would be inefficient to bring the behavior to the level of consciousness. We perform them without being conscious of them, though we could be if we wanted to. 


So machines can’t think. Not even computers. But forget for a minute the fact that when machines compute and predict, they do it in a way that doesn’t involve the dimensionality and particularity -- the consciousness -- that makes up our thoughts. Dick’s stories were more interested in having us disprove the second question we asked. What if all of our experience, the totality of our consciousness, were something inserted into our minds like an implant? Such a “consciousness chip” would contain an entire false memory system as rich or bare of experience as could be designed. We would possess reams of experiences we never had but which we accept as our proper history of consciousness, precisely because they have the vividness we just described and because we have nothing else to compare them to. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Dick posited Earth men on Mars who ingest a drug that makes them hallucinate an entire life back on earth, “Perky Pat Layouts” containing surfers and Barbie dolls as real to them as the “felt life” they currently experience trying to colonize Mars.

If drugs can induce a state of consciousness, why can’t software designers do drugs one better, producing vast false histories and personalities built out of them, slide by slide and flash by flash, from the whole cloth of binary instructions?

Philosophers have come up with scenarios that are even chillier. Hilary Putnam and Robert Nozick offer the notion of brains bubbling in vats, capable of selecting this or that experience as though it had been lived by a human containing that brain. We would like to think that we’d rather actually write a great novel or actually save some tsunami victims, as opposed to plugging into a canned virtual presentation of our performing these tasks. The moral high ground, the morally attractive choice, is to actually perform the experience we desire rather than just, well, experience it by downloading it into ourselves.

So what saves us, really, from the “false” true experiences as opposed to the “true” true experiences? Certainly partaking of either of the two, without standing back with any kind of detachment, makes them seem identical, and identically attractive. Hilary Putnam’s Howison Lectures, one of which I attended as a barely-conscious undergraduate, offered the essential scenario of the Matrix films nearly thirty years ago: brains in a vat hooked up to a program that “gives [them] a collective hallucination, rather than a number of separate hallucinations.” What happens is that since semantics derive significance from a community, the vat-brains’ reference to, say, climbing the side of a building like Spiderman means simply the image of such Spiderman-like climbing. Their reference is not to the actual behavior of going up a building wall with suction cups or climbing pitons. The vat-brains are speaking with a vat-language entirely different from ours, and who are we to say what they perceive is not as “real” as what we perceive?

The way out of this trap is in several steps. The first is to grant that the real consciousness (consciousness with its higher-order reality) comes with several aspects, several indicia of reliability that its creations do not possess. First, we can get a certain common sense assuredness, however, weak, that the imagined matter flows from the imagining entity. The thought or vision or creation will seem to spring from or emerge out of the creating thing, and not the other way around. Again, we have a conviction, an intuition, that the create world issues from an effort we expend, a natural impetus that seems impossible to implant or reproduce. The connection between the two always has this cause and effect relationship, one which never seems to run in the opposite direction even in the most extreme states of intoxication. (There are moments when Ford’s instincts show themselves, and appear to be something Replicants do not have, or have only weekly or woodenly.)

Another thing about true conscious states as opposed to non-conscious ones is the feature of durability and continuity. A dream, almost by definition, comes to an eventual state of evaporation. The qualia of an imagined event seems to peter out, to run down. It cannot run the endurance lap we require of almost all of our experiences in life. We might say, again with Robert Nozick, that the “real” thing is the thing that stays constant through innumerable disruptions, that remains steady through a wave of “Lorenz transformations.” Consciousness is invariant through all the variations that make up its perceptions and creations.

So the real thing, the creating thing, has the overall character of invariance that lasts through each of its extrusions. It also has the ability to link each one of its creations to the previous one, not in terms of theme, but certainly in terms of origin. Fireworks, however more beautiful than the ground they rise up from and illuminate, still have to be fired by someone. We never have the slightest notion that the ground rises up out of the pyrotechnics. And this is not just a matter of faith or repetition. It is the most common and reliable feature of experience: it simply happens that way and we have a well-grounded assuredness that it will continue to happen that way.

The ultimate advantage of grounding ourselves in the “real” real thing, the creating thing, is the concept of freedom it brings to us. If consciousness is a creating instrument, one over which we (usually) have control, then we really are free agents with all the responsibility that entails. The mind’s products are often erratic, amorphous. Our mental creations run in all directions and seem in danger of taking on their own life. But the creative force itself keeps hold of it and reels it back. The ability to go after our creations, to reign them in and control them, assures us that we have far greater power over our destinies than almost anything else in the world, not just non-conscious objects but non-self-conscious sentients like our brother animals. Whatever vats are hooked to one another and whatever drugs ingested, we can always reverse course with a true effort of will. Consciousness is the borderguard against the self’s enslavement. If the creating agent can never itself be created, then it can never be constrained.

Consciousness does not need to struggle to free itself, but its objects can seem maddeningly fleeting. Everything it attaches itself to can be ephemera. Pan again to Ford and Young in the cockpit of their hovercraft. Ford is not sure how long he’ll have the Replicant, as they all have pre-designated, programmed extinction dates. He looks into her eyes, knowing she’d be a lot, perhaps nearly everything, to lose. He shakes away the thought and accelerates.